A Devil Under the Skin reunites the pairing of Janusz Kiszka, unofficial ‘fixer’ to the Polish community in East London and young and headstrong female cop Natalie Kershaw. In the first book Kershaw started out as Kiszka’s nemesis but, over time, the pair have gradually acquired a begrudging respect and more recently an admiration for each other.
One of the attributes which has made the exploits of Kiszka and Kershaw such a gripping series is Lipska’s focus on character development. Lipska’s characters drive the plot forward and once again A Devil Under the Skin ensures the protagonists are taken outside of their comfort zones. This brings a realism to the series which is so often lacking once a successful formula is chanced upon and Lipska’s willingness to tamper with the status quo and test her characters delivers a dose of fresh energy to each instalment.
In A Devil Under the Skin, Kiszka is on the verge of welcoming his girlfriend of three years, Kasia, to share his home as she finally decides to leave her work-shy husband of twenty years. When Kasia vanishes on the eve of the move, a new side to Kiszka is revealed and his fragility is evident. Despite having worked in tandem with Kershaw before, albeit in an unofficial capacity, Kiszka still retains his reluctance to turn to the police, a lingering legacy of his bitter experiences from his earlier days lived under a communist regime. Against every instinct he succumbs to contacting ‘the girl detekyw’ and as the bodies pile up he concedes that this is one case he cannot solve alone.
Just about to turn thirty, PC Natalie Kershaw is facing big dilemmas. With the second book concluding with Natalie’s stabbing, this fresh episode rejoins her as she prepares to return to her new role, as a Armed Response Officer. After a lengthy inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the shooting of a suspect, Natalie is awaiting her clearance to return to duty. Drinking too much and spoiling for a fight, Kershaw is loathing her psychology sessions as she finds herself justifying her actions all over again. Kiszka recognises her problems and is reminded of the miseries of his life under a communist regime when he himself sought solace through alcohol.
Kiszka and Kershaw may appear to have little in common but they both like to challenge expectations and in a similar way that Kiskza is always quietly amused to see his fellow mansion blocks residents confused by having a Polish builder as a neighbour, Kershaw is equally happy conquering the inherent prejudices surrounding female firearms officers. These two love proving people wrong hence why the sparks often fly and a well drawn chemistry between the pair has evolved into a mutual attraction.
The cross-cultural differences are highlighted and subtly placed and it is the smallest details which add so much, one such an example is in seeing Kiszka’s bafflement at the extravagance of the funerals of East End gangsters, an occasion that only bear comparison to those of the leading lights of the communist movement in his equivalent homeland. One of the pleasures with having read the two earlier books in the series is in witnessing just how brilliantly the characters have developed. Secondary characters most notably DS ‘Streaky’ Bacon and Kiszka’s lifelong pal Oskar make welcome returns. Socially and culturally aware, yet replete with distinctive characters and black humour Lipska brings a fresh take to a changing London.
Whilst each of the three novels in this series can be read as a standalone, an appreciation of the journey Kiszka and Kershaw have made probably serves this to best effect. Vibrant, fresh and the most well constructed of the three novels, Lipska remained one step ahead of me all the way. Whilst some may question the likelihood of such an alliance between private investigator and a relatively junior cop, I simply went with the entertainment value and Lipska left her mark with sharp dialogue and infectious characters. The knowledge of police procedures is second to none and despite its social and cultural emphasis there is no doubting Lipska’s knowledge of forensics. Gritty and gripping, the Kiszka and Kershaw series has gone from strength to strength and comes very highly recommended.